'Foxcatcher': The crazy du Pont next door

After his arrest in 1996, John du Pont had this sign erected on his estate.

Story highlights

  • "Foxcatcher," based on a true story, is getting big awards season buzz
  • Steve Carell plays murdering millionaire sports benefactor John du Pont
  • Writer Ann O'Neill remembers growing up next to the du Pont estate
  • Du Pont died in prison, convicted of killing Olympic wrestler David Schultz

(CNN)He was the local loon. We didn't call him that, of course. He had buckets of money, and he was our neighbor, so we were polite. He was simply "odd."

He bought a replica police car, put on a uniform, flashed his auxiliary badge and made traffic stops outside the gates of his estate. He wrote official-looking citations and warnings, scolding everyone that they were driving too fast.
He let my swim team train during the winter in his Olympic-sized indoor pool. If you had an AAU ranking, you were invited to wear blue and gold T-shirts and warm-ups emblazoned with "Foxcatcher," the title he'd give his estate.
    John E. du Pont was his name. He was a direct descendant of E. I. du Pont, who founded a gunpowder mill that grew into the huge chemical company that gave the world nylon and Teflon. His father was known as "Stinky Willie" because of his aversion to personal grooming.
    John du Pont was awkward and pedantic, the eccentric millionaire next door. He collected seashells and stuffed birds and referred to himself as "America's golden eagle."
    He called his more prominent relatives "the lesser du Ponts," but the title probably fit him better. He was worth as much as $200 million, according to one Forbes estimate, and spent lavishly on his passion: amateur freestyle wrestling. He gave more than $3 million to the sport's governing body, USA Wrestling.
    Then he shot and killed one of wrestling's Olympic stars on the grounds of his estate. He was convicted and sent to prison, where he died four years ago.
    Said the man who won a murder conviction against du Pont: "He was just a crackpot, a real crackpot."
    From real life to the silver screen
    Now actor Steve Carell has brought the crackpot back to life. There's Oscar buzz already for "Foxcatcher." And while wrestling movies aren't my thing, I simply had to go see the 40-Year-Old Virgin play the Boo Radley of my childhood.
    Carell, a "Daily Show" alum beloved for playing Michael Scott in the popular sitcom "The Office," deserves every bit of the serious-actor praise he's getting. He could very well follow Nicole Kidman on the path to Oscar glory -- a journey that seems to require wearing a prosthetic nose and playing someone awful and tragic.
    "Foxcatcher" is a dark movie, and Carell captures this entitled, homicidal nut so well that I completely forgot I was watching a guy who plays it for laughs in Judd Apatow comedies.
    The movie is based on the story told by Mark Schultz, the brother of the man du Pont killed in 1996. David Schultz, an Olympic gold-medal winner, trained and coached at the athletic compound du Pont built on his sprawling estate in my hometown.
    Mark Schultz, an intense pit bull of a man, also wrestled and trained with du Pont. He has a book out, also called "Foxcatcher," and he's an executive producer of the movie. Both book and movie frankly depict the compromises athletes made to maintain the support of a wealthy but unhinged and controlling benefactor.
    My family was hardly rich, but we lived in a nice neighborhood called Echo Valley, which was built in the 1960s next to the du Pont estate in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. John and his mother, Jean Liseter Austin du Pont, were always the talk of the township.
    John's mother raised show beagles and Welsh ponies that dominated the competitions at the annual Devon Horse Show for more than half a century. She was a member of the Radnor Hunt Club. She loved chasing foxes with her society friends.
    That meant dogs, horses and wealthy people in red coats and high black boots could come tearing across the back yard as you polished off a bowl of Cheerios on Saturday mornings.
    The du Ponts' relationship with the neighbors certainly wasn't a two-way street. Their 800-acre property was posted with "No Trespassing" signs. As kids, we squirmed under the barbed wire fence to hunt for leopard frogs in the estate's many ponds. Lucky for us, this was a few years before he started patrolling the grounds in a tank.
    Later I learned why the place was off limits. The kidnapping of San Francisco heiress Patty Hearst apparently terrified the du Ponts. This fear eventually grew into full-fledged paranoia.
    Dreams of athletic glory
    John trained as a swimmer for a while with the famed Santa Clara Swim Club in northern California, but he was probably the slowest guy in the pool. He had his own 50-meter pool built on the estate in the late 1960s, but it was painfully obvious that he'd never set any records, no matter how hard he trained.
    So he tried his hand at the pentathlon, which adds fencing, show jumping, pistol shooting and a cross-country run to the swim. This made him a bit of a local hero. He's training for the Olympics, the neighbors would boast. But the truth was, no matter how much time or money he spent training, he was never going to be good enough to make the Olympic team.
    I had an opportunity to interview du Pont by telephone long ago for The County Leader, Newtown Square's weekly newspaper. It was my first reporting job out of college. He had used his helicopter to airlift a woman in labor to a hospital during a snowstorm. He was charming enough and clearly loved the attention.
    But he was far from a socialite. He said during a magazine interview that he avoided social occasions, fearing all those marriage-minded mothers intent on foisting their daughters on him.
    He met the woman who would become his wife at a hospital after injuring his hand. She was not of his class, but he walked down the aisle, the neighbors gossiped, because taking a wife was a condition of his inheritance.
    The marriage lasted less than a year; she left him, saying in a lawsuit that he drank heavily, pushed her into a fireplace, pointed a gun at her head and called her a Russian spy. She asked for $5 million, but the case was settled and the terms never disclosed.
    When I was a kid, the du Pont estate was still known as Liseter Hall Farms, the name John's mother had given it. It had been part of William Penn's original charter for Newtown Township and was a wedding gift from her father.
    She held onto the place after her husband, Stinky Willie, departed in 1940. The white-columned mansion was a replica of President James Madison's Montpelier, a Virginia estate that was occupied for a time by some of those so-called "lesser du Ponts." She painted the house and outbuildings white and the shutters green.
    She never remarried and raised her youngest son alone, alongside her prized beagles and ponies. The four-legged creatures seemed more skilled at pleasing her by winning medals and ribbons than the boy did.
    His mother looked down on wrestling, saying it was the sport of "ruffians." And I don't think John was particularly fond of the dogs and ponies that commanded her attention. In one scene in the movie, he chases the horses from the barn after his mother dies.
    Burned into my memory
    That scene reminded me why the sight of that barn always scared me. It burned to the ground when I was about 8. I was watching my favorite show, "Batman," on the big, new color TV in the family room when an eerie, orange glow lit up the night sky.
    For days afterward, Echo Valley smelled like steak night at summer camp. Some 30 horses perished in the fire. It was terrifying to pass the barn's burned-out hulk on the school bus. I'd cry at the thought of all those charred ponies and thoroughbreds.
    The neighborhood gossip mill had a field day when John bought the replica police car and started writing warnings. Officer John, we called him. He seemed to particularly enjoy stopping a neighbor who drove a sporty red Alfa Romeo convertible.
    Du Pont let local police departments use his shooting range for weapons training. Officers rented houses on the estate on the cheap. He played the role of eccentric benefactor perfectly. He had enough money and enough land to insulate his mental illness until it exploded in violence.
    The 1988 death of his mother was a turning point in John's life. He changed the name of the estate to Foxcatcher Farm. And he really started going off the rails.
    The movie dishes up plenty of crazy. Carell/du Pont drives a tank, flies a helicopter, shoots off guns and cannons, has postage stamps made in his likeness, crashes a couple of Lincoln town cars into the frog pond, drinks like a fish, calls himself the Dalai Lama and gets grabby with the wrestlers.
    He claimed ghosts lived in the walls of his mansion and rigged them with razor wire. He saw bugs crawling in the patterns on the Oriental rugs and felt them under his skin. He grew increasingly paranoid and menacing.
    His final descent
    Du Pont's entry into the annals of true crime came on January 26, 1996. His silver Lincoln slowly cruised up Dave Schultz's driveway on the DuPont compound. John rolled down the window and asked, "You got a problem with me?" He fired a .44-caliber Magnum revolver twice. Schultz's wife, Nancy, stepped onto the porch as du Pont fired a third shot into the dying man's back as he lay sprawled on the ground.
    The shooter retreated to his mansion, where for two days he held off 75 cops, including 30 SWAT team members, many of whom had practiced on his firing range. Neighbors gathered at the gate and traded "Officer John" stories as police shined bright lights on the mansion and shut off the utilities.
    Du Pont was arrested when he emerged from his mansion to check on a boiler in the gatehouse.
    There were strong suggestions in the movie that du Pont's interest in his wrestlers might have been more than that of a mentor. The movie played it with a heavy hand. Back in the real world, there were troubling allegations at the courthouse.
    A wrestling coach at Villanova University, which du Pont also lavished with his millions, sued for wrongful termination. He claimed he was fired after spurning du Pont's advances. Villanova eventually discontinued the wrestling program. And, after du Pont was arrested on the murder charge, Villanova took his name off its sports pavilion.
    Wrestlers were quoted in court depositions describing duPont's custom grappling move. Called "the Foxcatcher Five," it involved grabbing an opponent at his most vulnerable spot -- between the legs.
    In his book, Mark Schultz says he believes du Pont faked insanity during his murder trial. He cited a single anecdote that left him feeling a little sorry for his brother's killer: He said Du Pont confided in him about a riding accident he had when he was a boy. John was caught on a fence, and his injured testicles became infected. They were removed and replaced with prosthetics.
    Du Pont was probably the richest man in the United States to stand trial for murder, says co-prosecutor Dennis McAndrews. He worked on the case with prosecutor Joseph McGettigan, who later sent former Penn State assistant football coach and serial child molester Jerry Sandusky to prison.
    I covered Sandusky's trial in 2012, and ran into McAndrews. I had covered some of his cases as a cub reporter and there he was, advising McGettigan from the peanut gallery. The two now practice law together on Philadelphia's Main Line.
    Du Pont went on trial a year or two after O.J. Simpson's wealth funded a legal dream team that won his acquittal in the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and waiter Ron Goldman.
    Du Pont's prosecutors anticipated another dream team defense designed to convince the jury that he was legally insane. So they portrayed him the way they saw him, as "a self-absorbed, entitled rich guy," as McAndrews put it.
    Asked his view of du Pont, McGettigan did not mince words. Du Pont wasn't crazy; he was a jerk.
    "Some people are just basically jerks," he says. "Whether he was born a jerk or was made a jerk, he was a jerk. He was a mean guy. Money was inconsequential to him. When you have years and years of enabling by scores of people because of your incredible wealth, it can veer into tragic circumstances."
    Experts testified that du Pont was a paranoid schizophrenic. The defense made liberal use of brain scans, considered at the time to be a huge technical and evidentiary advance. Prosecutors didn't deny he had issues but argued that they didn't meet the legal standard for insanity. By holing up in his mansion for two days, du Pont was acknowledging that he knew what he did was wrong, they argued.
    During his trial, du Pont wore blue and gold Team Foxcatcher warm-ups to court. He had done all the crazy things people talked about, but there usually was some grain of truth or ironic twist of logic behind it, McAndrews said.
    Yes, du Pont hired people to scour the estate for tunnels, but tunnels really did run under the mansion. Yes, he installed razor wire between the mansion walls, McAndrews said, but the wrestlers used to hide in those walls and jump out and startle du Pont.
    The jury decided that du Pont was mentally ill but guilty of third-degree murder. They were convinced he acted with malice when he shot Schultz but did not plan in advance to kill him.
    As Judge Patricia Jenkins put it: He was mad, and he was bad.
    End of the journey: prison
    Du Pont was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison, where he died in December 2010 at the age of 72. He spent what should have been his golden years behind bars.
    While he was locked up, du Pont ordered the sign at the estate's gate changed to read, "Foxcatcher Prison Farm." On his orders, employees painted the buildings black, including the crime scene, a stone house along Goshen Road. Was he was trying to erase everything that happened there? Or was he signaling that he, too, was in mourning?
    People in my old neighborhood had hoped the du Pont place would be maintained as public open space. But it became an eyesore as the weeds sprouted, the horses roamed and the stately Georgian mansion started to fade after standing empty for more than a decade. It sold shortly before du Pont's death for $28.5 million.
    About 125 acres already had gone to Episcopal Academy, a prestigious Main Line prep school that built a new campus there in 2008. A few more acres were turned into a park. And the rest is being developed.
    It would have cost too much to restore the mansion to its former glory. So, the Montpelier replica was torn down to make room for upscale suburban houses that sell for upwards of $2 million apiece.
    John du Pont is buried at an undisclosed location. Under the terms of his will, he was laid to rest in his Foxcatcher wrestling singlet.